Chen Zhen


Beyond the Vulnerability

Chen Zhen was born in Shanghai in 1955; he died in Paris in 2002. He arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on July 15, 1999, with Cai Guo-Qiang. Chen chose to work with a group of about twenty teenagers from Stampaxé, in collaboration with the educator Raimundo Aquila. Chen's wife, Xu Min, and fourteen-year-old son, Chen Bo, arrived on August 6 and worked with him for the last two weeks of his stay.

Chen has stated after he arrived in Salvador, he began to see that many of the problems he encountered there, especially the poverty, were similar to problems he had encountered as a young man in China, when he was sent to the countryside for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution, because he was considered to be a "petit bourgeois" intellectual. But at the same time, he has observed that because the problems in Salvador were rooted in the city, rather the countryside, in confrontations between poor neighborhoods and rich ones, their tenor was different. The city as a physical and as an imaginary space eventually became the focus of his project. Because the idea of the city, architecture, and home had so much resonance for Chen, he decided with his family and the children to form an office of urbanism, which culminated in the construction of an imaginary city of houses built of colored candles. He emphasized that his intention with this project was not to teach the children, but to give them the space to release their inner creativity as artists: to let them know that they could make their own choices in life.

Chen inaugurated the project by presenting his work to the group. In his installations, which he began producing in 1990, Chen poetically employed both his study of traditional Chinese culture and his knowledge of Western avant-garde art to engage with contemporary social issues. In these works, he sought to re-read Chinese culture and society from a Western context and Western culture and society from a Chinese one, often to engage with such issues as the relationships between nature and humanity, tradition and modernity, and the local and the global in contemporary society. He developed most of these installations in dialogue with the geographical, social, cultural, and historical characteristics of the sites in which the installations were installed. He later invented the term transexperience to describe the experience of living between cultures and using this perspective as the basis for the creation of socially meaningful art.

After his presentations, Chen and the children researched the history of popular habitation in Salvador, beginning with the first slave ship and concluding with the houses built on stilts over the water in the Alagados neighborhood. In order to develop a deeper understanding of Salvador's built environment and how it materialized social relationships, they made visits to a cross-section of neighborhoods, rich and poor, including Arembepe and Alagados. Chen introduced the children to six different habitats in particular: Centro de Salvador, Cidade Alta (Upper City); houses on stilts, Alagados, Itapagipe; Graça, Cidade Alta; favelas (slums), Avenida Suburbana; Bonfim, Itapagipe; Cidade Baixa (Lower City). He also gave each of the children a disposable camera and asked them to photograph architectural elements of their own houses in order to give him and his family a better understanding of their houses and living environments. Then the children discussed what their city, neighborhood, streets, and homes meant to them and imagined what the home of their dreams would look like.

In the next phase of the project, the children, with Chen's help, made drawings of different types of homes. They used these drawings to develop actual models of the homes from candles. Chen was interested in using candles as a building material because they were inexpensive, easily available, and objects that the children liked to play with. They also have great symbolic resonance in Candomblé, and Chen selected candles in colors corresponding to each Candomblé orixá (deity). In addition, making houses of candles also seemed to evoke the beauty and magic, but also the fragility, of the children's dreams for the future. As Bo observed, "My father's project permitted the children to concretize the objects of their imagination."

With this project, Chen hoped to give the children the knowledge that they could imagine a brighter future for themselves—the knowledge that they had choices. As he stated, "Of course, their problems are not solved. They still live with a lot of uncertainty. But they also asked me if I thought that one day they would be able to live abroad, to make their own choices, like I had done, when I left China. These children had rarely been in the position to make many choices, apart from the crucial exceptions of leaving their homes to live on the streets and then deciding to leave the streets to return home and to school and join Projeto Axé. I tried to help them see that they have many choices, that they are on a road of recovery. In China we have a saying: Like a little boat heading into the immensity of the ocean, it is not where we are going or how we will get there that is important, but that we have embarked on the journey. Fourteen years ago, I arrived in Paris with nothing but two suitcases; the rest is history."